Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:57 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:57 | SYDNEY

Reader ripostes: Do our spies understand Asia?

22 February 2012 08:03

Below, thoughts from Kate Grayson, but first, Alex Burns:

Hugh White contends that Cornall-Black's public overview 'mostly reads like a government PR brochure'. If so, it continues a trend I saw in 2003 when examining a decade of ASIO annual reports, in which the later reports had a similar layout and focused on post-September 11 initiatives.

Intelligence was framed in a particular way for the public. This perhaps reflects the Australian Intelligence System's (AIS) roots in the Westminster democratic parliament. There aren't the kind of public resources on the AIS and analytic methodologies that one finds in the US-based National Intelligence Council or the CIA's Kent Center, for example.

Apart from White, Australia has several well-known intelligence and national security scholars, including David Martin Jones (UQ) and Carl Ungerer (ASPI). Philip Gregory teaches intelligence at Monash's School of Political & Social Inquiry. But we are yet to get the critical mass of networked scholars such as Richard K Betts (Columbia), Robert Jervis (Colombia), Gregory Treverton (RAND), Loch Johnson (University of Georgia), or emerging scholars like Amy Zegart (UCLA). Many of these scholars have either been involved in reviews (Betts; Jervis) or have conducted their own post-mortems (Zegart).

Australian analysts, policymakers and scholars could learn from their body of work. Future reviews of the AIS might involve more targeted consultation with relevant Australian academics.

White's 'major new intelligence effort' can be found (in part) throughout academia and in open sources. The various Asia Institutes of Griffith, Monash and Melbourne universities continue to publish major research and to train linguists. AusAID and the Australian Research Council have discernible patterns of awarded grants. DFAT's Australia-China Council and similar initiatives promote inter-country collaboration between university researchers. Alastair Iain Johnston's PhD on China's strategic culture (University of Michigan 1993; published by Princeton University Press in 1998) led to subsequent dissertations on Japan, South Korea, the European Union and other topics. Perhaps the Lowy Interpreter could be one blog platform to consolidate and comment on these strands to policymakers and to a wider audience.

Sam Roggeveen quotes George Kennan's comments on secrecy from a 1998 letter to the late Democrat politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Kennan's comments reflect his late-life caution about United States grand strategy, and issues like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's expansion and the 2003 Iraq War. However, Kennan's career highlights the value of long-term investment in diplomacy, linguistics, and immersive experience that White and Roggeveen argue for.

Kennan was part of an early cohort in the Foreign Service School and benefited from postings in Switzerland, Germany, Latvia, the USSR, and Czechoslovakia. These experiences — together with Kennan's study of history, literature, and regular diary writing — informed the Long Telegram and X article which conceptualised the Cold War's containment policy.

Finally, Kennan also conceptualised the Central Intelligence Agency's covert action capability, whilst as first Director of the Policy Planning Staff in the US Department of State. Kennan's initiative and its later operational failures cast the die for the 1975 Church Committee hearings, and for high-profile CIA critics including Philip Agee, Victor Marchetti, and John D Marks. This period still casts a large shadow over the US intelligence community, so it's no surprise that Cornall-Black opts for 'a government PR brochure' approach.

Kate Grayson:

Perhaps Kennan is right about the use of 'legitimate sources of information open and available’, but one of the findings from the release of the unclassified version of the Independent Review of the Intelligence Community highlights the limits of open source reporting and the need to ensure that Australia's diplomatic service is able to meet the growing demand for insightful reporting.

"For all the value of open source reporting, it has its limits. Just as in an earlier age, intelligence agencies’ reliance on signals intelligence led to the degradation of human intelligence to the point of vulnerability, we have to be careful that the amount of information freely available in cyberspace does not tempt us to fall into the same trap.

One way to avoid or at least minimise this vulnerability is to ensure our diplomatic service is able to meet the growing demand for insightful reporting about the many countries and issues which are now of interest to Australia.

Finally, while modern technologies facilitate the collection of more useful open source information, those technologies are making covert human intelligence gathering more challenging. Careful planning and investment will be needed to avoid these challenges severely constraining covert efforts."

Yet, as identified by Alex Oliver and Andrew Shearer in Diplomatic Disrepair: Rebuilding Australia's International Policy Infrastructure, Australia's diplomatic footprint remains deficient despite some modest initial steps being taken towards rebuilding Australia's diplomatic infrastructure. Clearly, much more still needs to be done in order to meet the growing demand for insightful reporting by ensuring that Australia's overseas diplomatic network does not remain 'chronically underfunded and overstretched.'